Big win for Lippo in legal battle with Astro

PHOTO: Big win for Lippo in legal battle with Astro

Indonesian conglomerate Lippo Group Wednesday claimed the spoils of victory after a rancorous, five-year legal stand-off with another of South-east Asia's corporate giants, Malaysia's Astro.

Lippo paid media group Astro just US$700,000 (S$875,000) - a tiny fraction of what Astro had been seeking in the bruising legal battle played out in multiple jurisdictions, with Singapore serving as centre stage.

Late last month, Singapore's Court of Appeal dealt a major blow to Astro, controlled by tycoon T. Ananda Krishnan, by awarding a big win to a unit of Lippo, an Indonesian conglomerate led by billionaire James Riady.

The complex legal fight is over a pay-TV joint venture in Indonesia between Astro and Lippo's First Media inked back in 2005 and which turned sour two years later.

For Astro, which fought hard to get some US$250 million from Lippo in damages for money ploughed into the project, the ruling may be difficult to swallow.

Based on the decision by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Astro is getting only a paltry 0.3 per cent of the sum it had hoped for.

The court essentially overturned a High Court decision in October last year, which gave Astro victory against Lippo in upholding awards worth US$250 million issued by the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (Siac).

The latest ruling was premised on a finding that three of the eight units under Astro making most of the claims against Lippo were not parties to the arbitration agreement, so a big portion of the Siac awards could not be enforced.

The ruling is "a rare intervention" by Singapore's courts in the arbitration process, said the Global Arbitration Review, a leading international arbitration law journal and news service.

The decision followed a closely watched three-day hearing in April with Queen's Counsels Toby Landau and David Joseph facing off on behalf of First Media and Astro respectively. Lippo was represented by Braddell Brothers' Mr Edmund Kronenburg and Ms Lye Huixian, while Astro's case was led by WongPartnership's Mr Chou Sean Yu, Ms Lim Wei Lee and Mr Melvin Lum.

Other cases involving the two heavyweights are outstanding in Malaysia and Indonesia with a key feud unfolding in Hong Kong between Astro and Hong Kong-listed AcrossAsia, the parent of First Media caught in the crossfire.

In that dispute, the outcome so far has been in Astro's favour. On Oct 31, the Malaysian media group won an absolute garnishee order for AcrossAsia to cough up about US$47 million. The garnishee was first obtained in July 2011 and challenged by AcrossAsia.

This was a loan to AcrossAsia made by First Media in June 2011. Astro said it was designed to thwart enforcing the Siac awards.

But given the Singapore ruling, sources said AcrossAsia is likely to seek to set aside the Hong Kong order. "If the Singapore court has ruled that 99.7 per cent of the award cannot be enforced, then it is likely to have a bearing in Hong Kong," said a legal observer.

The recent decision here could soon bring to an end the long-running battle between Mr Ananda and Mr Riady, which has turned the corporate titans from business partners into bitter rivals.

But there are hints that it could drag on. In an announcement dated Nov 4, Malaysian-listed Astro said the Siac awards remain valid as "they have not been (and cannot be) set aside as the awards are final, binding and conclusive".

This could mean it is not yet game over for the feud, with legal bills running into tens of millions.

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